Friday, February 15, 2013

Atheism: A Love Story

One of the complaints often leveled at the idea of atheism is that it’s depressing because it takes away the point of life for many religious people. They view their time on Earth as but a fraction of their entire experience as they expect to go to heaven when they die. As such, the “meaning of life” becomes living a life God would be proud of in order to get into heaven. If there is no heaven/afterlife, then what's the point of life? First of all, that’s a bit of a shortsighted question--if you take it a step further, what is the point of heaven? Does anything even happen in heaven, or does the mind just go to a generally blissful state? If everything in heaven is perfect, how can one ever feel a sense of purpose or accomplishment? Obviously, everything relating to the idea of heaven is pure conjecture (including whether or not it even exists), so I won’t dwell on it here. As far as the supposed “proof” of heaven via near death experiences goes, I leave that topic in the capable hands of Sam Harris because he has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and, as it turns out, I do not.

So, getting back to the original question: what is the point of life from an atheist perspective? It’s a complicated answer, and there’s much more depth to it than the religious view described above (a view that I shared at one time). In fact, I think I’m leading a much more meaningful life as an atheist than I would be as a Christian. If I read that last sentence a decade ago, my first reaction would be “Bullllllllllshit.” My second reaction would be “Hey, future self, while you’re here, wanna toss me some Back to the Future II style betting tips? Kinda seems like we’d be wasting this whole time-traveling experience if we didn’t get anything out of it. Also, how does my fashion sense hold up?” To which I would reply “Bet the Pats in the Super Bowl and lose the jorts, nerd. And I’m dead serious about life being better as an atheist.” Allow me to extrapolate on that point.

First of all, there are a few obvious (though not terribly meaningful) advantages to losing my religion. I’m no longer obligated to tithe, so I can donate money directly to charities who will use all of it to do meaningful work. Granted, I didn’t have much of a disposable income when I was still religious, but I imagine that if I was still religious I would hardly donate anything beyond the 10% I gave to the church (and you can be damn sure I’d calculate the 10% after taxes. I mean, 10% is a sizable chunk either way, and I’d still be kinda pissed about it). That’s not the case now--I have more money, and the organizations I donate to have more money. Everybody wins! Well, except God, of course. He loses in this scenario. Then again, it doesn’t seem like omnipotent beings should have to collect donations to begin with. If I were to give money to an institution inspired by an imaginary character, it would make more sense to give it to one without superpowers. Like The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.

The other obvious advantage: no boring church services on Sunday mornings. Sleeping in on Sunday mornings is such a far superior use of time than listening to someone interpret the words of Bronze Age Jews that it’s not even funny. I get why weekly services are necessary--if people aren’t told on a weekly basis that their religious beliefs are correct they run the serious risk of realizing that there’s no good reason to continue believing. Sunday mornings are a really inconvenient time to hold these things, though. For most people, that would leave Saturday as the only day of the week where they weren’t obligated to get up early.

First of all, that means those people probably aren’t getting enough sleep. Secondly, it means people aren’t getting as much enjoyment out of their weekends as they should be if they have to cut their Saturday nights short. For most people, weekends are the best part of life, so being pious kinda reduces their quality of life by default. Granted, some people actually enjoy going to church, but I have to wonder what percentage of people fall into that category. The fellowship with other people is all well and good, but the services themselves? I probably legitimately enjoyed ~2% of the ones I attended. It was just something I put up with because I felt I had to, like annoying relatives or Nickelback on the radio.

Of course, there are plenty of deeper reasons to welcome the absence of religion. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’re already aware of the fact that I’ve got some serious issues with the idea that religion provides a good moral framework for society. As an atheist, I’m no longer tied to a nonsensical set of morals. Premarital sex is totally fine, just don’t be stupid about it. Bacon is great; put it on pizza, wrap it around steaks, throw it in omelettes, and blend it with milk and apple pie for a delightfully tasty artery-clogging drink. Treat women and homosexuals and all other people as they deserve to be treated. No other rules have to compete with the Golden/Platinum Rule; simply consider the feelings and judgments of other people rather than a mythical deity that provides no feedback. In general, being an atheist allows one to think and act rationally without worrying about dogma which, if the premise that most people are generally good is true, unequivocally makes the world a better place. It requires that people actually think, which I realize is asking a lot in some cases, but I’d like to think that most people could handle that.

This freedom extends beyond just morality--religion no longer clutters up any of my thinking. I don’t have to deal with the mental gymnastics of trying to reconcile what makes sense and what the Bible dictates. I no longer have to come up with bizarre rationalizations for why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I don’t have to figure out a feasible way for God to allow priests to molest children for multiple generations without retribution. I don’t have to tolerate any Catholic bullshit, for that matter. I always thought Catholicism was kinda ridiculous when I was younger, but now I can be openly disdainful of their pseudo-ban on birth control and their belief that whoever they name the Pope is somehow uber-knowledgeable when, in reality, he’s clearly a power-hungry crazy fuck (to put it in layman’s terms). Do you know how great it feels to call the Pope a crazy fuck without a hint of remorse? Soooooo liberating!

It sounds cliche (and probably also sounds like revisionist history), but becoming an atheist was like lifting a veil from my mind. Until I was removed from religion, I had no idea how much it influenced my thinking and worldview. I always thought of myself as a pretty intelligent person on account of the whole “valedictorian” thing (editor’s note: being the valedictorian of Buckeye High School does not necessarily make one intelligent--it just means that said person is capable of thinking and doing homework. I mean, this is a school that had Drive Your Tractor to School Day...and they wouldn’t let some people who lived on a farm participate. Not that I’m bitter...), but I remember outright rejecting the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang Theory back in the day because, you know, God. Now, it seems obvious to me that the only way a thinking, informed person could possibly reject the reality of evolution is by wearing religious blinders. There is quite simply way too much evidence supporting evolution (and way too much concurrence in the scientific community) to disbelieve it without a religious bias. The Big Bang is still just our best guess, but there’s much more evidence for it than the nonsense in Genesis.

In addition to being more open-minded about pretty much everything, I also find that I actually want to learn about stuff now. In the words of Einstein:
“The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties--this knowledge, this feeling...that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.”

At the risk of sounding like a nerd (as if there was any doubt): learning is cool. I actually enjoy learning how things work now. My former lack of interest in learning was probably due to my dislike for school as much as anything else, and the fact that I’m no longer forced to learn stuff certainly plays a role in my enjoyment of learning now. However, I also think that religion dulls the desire to learn more about the real world. Religion tells us that God created everything and that’s that. There is no further discovery to make. Finding out that we’re made up of cells is just more insight into God’s creation. Same with discovering that other galaxies exist: “Oh, God made other galaxies, too? Well, we already knew that he created all the stars, so this isn’t really news.”

When all the answers are not yet known, it instills a desire to find those answers. Otherwise, I might as well sit on my ass all day and play video games until I die and go to heaven since there’s nothing better to do (so long as I pray and tithe). Now that I don’t have “God did it” as an answer to every question, not only do I have a desire to figure out an answer to life’s great questions--I am also not hindered by dogma in my acceptance of new, contradictory data. It’s much easier to learn when both curious and open-minded. It’s no coincidence that scientists are significantly more likely to be nonreligious than others.

To steal another quote, this time from Charles Bukowski:
“For those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

To put it simply: I value the time that I have here much more. I have a finite amount of time to experience all the world has to offer, and there is nothing better waiting for me after I die. This really makes me want to live my life to the fullest, as cheesy as that sounds. Anytime I get depressed about anything, there’s a really easy rebuttal: it beats the hell out of being dead. Being sad or frustrated is simply a waste of time, and it becomes harder to justify wasting time when you’re aware that you don’t have much of it.

Rather than subtracting a meaning of life (such as “do God’s will”), I find much more purpose as an atheist. If I’ve only got 70-80 years here, I want to leave this world a better place than I found it. I want society to advance. I want future generations to have more knowledge and do greater things based on what this generation has done. I want to avoid nuclear war so there will be a next generation. I want Star Trek: The Next Generation to become a reality. Seriously, how cool would it be if warp drives existed and medical technology was crazy advanced and teleportation was a thing that people did?

Obviously, wanting society to advance and loving Jesus are not mutually exclusive. I’m not trying to make that point, and I hope I’ve made it clear in my writing that I don’t think the contrast between moderate Christians and humanists is that stark. I’m well aware that many Christians are fans of Star Trek. With that being said, there’s definitely a different set of priorities that comes with being religious. If you think that your eternal salvation is dependent on living something resembling a pious life, then that has to be your highest priority in life. It has to be or you don’t truly believe that. This is one of the biggest issues with Middle-Eastern culture: they take their religion Very. Fucking. Seriously. If they took education half as seriously as they take religion, the world would unequivocally be a better, more peaceful place.

This all ties back in part to my Why This Blog Exists? post in that I think devaluing religion will ultimately lead to a better world, thereby fulfilling one of my life goals. Writing this blog has also definitely been cathartic for me and is a big reason I continue to write, but I still believe that we could make the world better by doing away with religion.

I think it’s fair to ask the question “how much of this is posturing/bullshit/rationalization to make yourself feel better about not going to heaven when you die?” A bit, to be honest. But I also think it’s only natural to try to find a positive outlook on one’s belief system, regardless of what it is. I may not be going to heaven, but I don’t think it exists in the first place so there’s really no point in getting down about that. So what makes more sense: being depressed that after my life on Earth ends I’ll never experience joy again, or finding ways to experience as much joy as possible while I’m here?

In conclusion: hooray for heathenism, let’s go drink beer.

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